Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Halloween outreach!

I have been wanting for some time to do an outreach program during Halloween and have posted about the idea on several internet sites. For years, however, I was stymied by having small kids who wanted to go trick-or-treating and I had to drive them around.

Then last year I picked the prime street corner of the biggest housing development to set up my scope in, It was the perfect spot, lots of kids & foot traffic, and a house on the corner had a large, level grassy yard with good access to the sky.

The lady of the house met me at the door with 2 growling dogs and said an emphatic "NO!" to my request to set up a scope in her yard on Halloween night. Go figure! As a result, I had to choose a different neighborhood and got one with little foot traffic. I did manage to show comet Holmes to a couple dozen people, though, so it wasn't a complete wash.

This year (2008) I was told that I had to stay home because the older daughter wanted to host a Halloween party/bonfire. I was a little disappointed, but managed to be philosophical about it all, considering my lack of a huge success the year before. Besides that, the bonfire parties we host are a ton of fun and not to be missed!

Then just a couple days before Halloween my wife informed me that there hadn't been enough planning and preparation for the bonfire party, and that the event was not going to happen. Also both daughters would be going to sleepovers that night, in the very same housing development I had targeted the year before for outreach. Thus I was free to try my hand yet again at Halloween outreach. Yay!

This time I vowed not to sequester myself in a remote neighborhood, but instead I set up on the street in the preferred, high-traffic neighborhood a few doors down from the "NO!" lady. I arrived early and got a prime parking spot and set up my scope right behind my truck. After a minute or so, somebody parked right behind me, so I rolled forward a few feet and had a nice space to put my scope.


I did a cursory compass-assisted alignment of the Atlas mount on my 10" reflector, which was an adequate alignment, saved me time and got me up & running quickly.


I had a large bowl of candy on a chair next to the scope and called out stuff like "I have candy and the planet Jupiter over here" as kids & families walked by on the street.


Altogether I showed Jupiter to about 100 people, of whom maybe 2 had looked through a telescope before.

I did get some white face paint on my favorite Nagler 22's rubber eyecup courtesy of Dracula:


but that's a small price to pay. I made sure to have a scrap of paper in my pocket with the names of the Jovian moons and did my "Europa has a sea of liquid water under 5 kilometers of ice" spiel over and over! I was in outreach heaven! If you like talking to kids about the wonders of the universe you should try it yourself next year!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bear Mountain astronomy retreat!

It did clear up Saturday night, but it was 11PM by the time it was clear enough to start setting up my equipment for photography. There were clouds on the backside of the front that the CSC didn't predict. It was clear during dinner, though. We ate like kings and had a great meal!

Early on in the evening it was partly cloudy and we saw the Hubble Space Telescope pass by low in the Southern sky!

It took me till 11:42 to get the first image. I had to struggle to remember how to do time exposures with the Nikon after a whole year of inactivity (yikes!) because I discovered that I did not have my camera's manual with me.

After a time I did figure it out and got some nice images, though only with the camera mounted directly on the Atlas mount. It was very windy, so I couldn't mount the telescope and manually guide the camera with the guiding eyepiece like I wanted to do. I had to make do with the polar alignment I had (which turned out to be pretty good). This is my M31 image, which was unguided!

Photo by Richard Drumm

I did almost without exception 10 minute exposures at ISO 1600. I have worked on the images as much as I should. My technique needs refinement, but that's the fun of it! There's much more to do and learn, I wouldn't want to do it all right off the bat, then there'd be nothing more to do and I'd get bored. Nobody else did any photography at the retreat. Wes had his short tube refractor set up as it was somewhat immune to the wind. Ed didn't set up his large scope due to the wind. The winds continued all night and into the next day.

There was a good bit of work with Celestron Sky Scouts and a good time was had by all. Luke Langjoen played his guitar (with cold fingers) for a while, playing songs he wrote himself! Wes & I sat up for a good long while and watched Orionid meteors till I finished up with the photography. We must have seen at least 30 or so total. Then he & I went down the hill for a midnight snack (all the Fan Mtn doughnuts got eaten!) and sleep in the heated bunkhouse.

Paul & Carla Quenneville & I went to the NRAO Green Bank Open House on Sunday and ran the club CaK PST side-by-side with my Ha PST on my Atlas mount. Pretty snazzy! I didn't take a photo of the rig, though. Life is good (for me) when I do EPO with kids!

Those of you who didn't come missed a good one, even though there were some clouds earlier on in the evening. True, it was windy & cold, but we astronomers are a tough lot and we had dressed for the elements. The skies back home just don't compare with the skies over there, they literally pale by comparison!

Listened to George Hrab's Geologic podcasts all the way out there and all the way back. How frakkin cool is that? Very!
More later, especially after I process some images to post on Flickr and link to from here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Think For Yourself!

Here's a cool song by George Hrab:

Like I say above, it's a manifesto for clear thought. That pretty much sums it all up! George Hrab is an incredibly talented musician whom you should all get to know. His "Geo logic" podcast is the best produced podcast out there, very enjoyable and worth the time to listen. I think I'll always chuckle at the "I like traffic lights" guy! I bought this song via iTunes, and I present it here via the Blip.com service. It's like Flickr for audio...

Even though linguistically it might be more correct to do so, I won't be calling it a creed, because that term relies on "belief" which isn't evidence based. As evidence is key to the scientific method, I'll stick with manifesto.
Thus even though saying "I believe I'll have another beer." seems correct, it probably isn't... :lol:
All you have to do is click where it says "Play" and enjoy!
Thanks for listening!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Outreach at McCormick Observatory

Last night (Oct 10th, 2008) I operated the 26" Clark refractor at McCormick Observatory for a pair of groups. One was a group of school kids, and the other was Brownie Scouts. They all were 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders. There might have been a couple 5th graders there, I couldn't tell exactly. This is the sort of outreach I like best. There's nothing quite to compare with sitting at the eyepiece of a giant telescope like that and talking to kids about what they're seeing. 

This picture is from a couple years ago. It shows how frakkin' large the Clark is!

I went through my spiel over and over again: "This is Jupiter, the largest planet we have in our solar system. You'll see 4 little dots of light in a row, 2 on the left and 2 on the right. One of the dots on the left is really close to the planet. The names from left to right are Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io. Io looks like a pizza when you're up close in a spacecraft because it has volcanoes that spew out sulfur and the moon is colored red & yellow from it. The red is like tomato sauce and the yellow is like cheese!" 

Then while the kids were listening to a presentation by Dr. Wilson of UVa, I slewed the scope over to Uranus and said stuff like: "The light from Uranus has travelled for 2 1/2 hours to get here. So light left the sun, bounced off the atmosphere of Uranus, then travelled all the way here for that long a time, passed through the lenses of the telescope and went 'splat!' in your eye!"

I told them that in 4th grade they'll hear all about the planets from their teacher, Venus, Mars and all. When the teacher mentions Uranus you can raise your hand and say "I've seen Uranus up at McCormick Observatory in the giant telescope there. The light took 2 1/2 hours to get here from there!" Your teacher will be amazed!

These little bits of verbal blather always get the kids interested in what they're seeing and really make the evening something special. I'm a real EPO (Education & Public Outreach) junkie, I just can't get enough of it. That's what gets me up in the morning.

If you ever find yourselves in the Charlottesville, Virginia area on a Friday night, be sure to go up to McCormick Observatory to see the show. On the 1st and 3rd Fridays of the month it's open to the general public (free of charge) and telescope viewing will happen if it's clear. On the 2nd & 4th Fridays we at CAS operate the scope and give the presentation for school groups, scout troops and such. Last night was an exception as Dr. Wilson had a daughter in the scout troop.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Hello, I'm Richard B. Drumm, currently President of the Charlottesville Astronomical Society in Charlottesville Virginia. I'm a video producer by trade and public outreach astronomy education is my passion. I'll have things to post here from time to time and it is my hope that they are enlightening and fun to read. 

My biggest hope is that I won't be boring and that the excitement of discovery of the universe we live in will be your reward for reading this blog.

Here in the photo you see me with my trusty Orion Atlas 10 telescope at one of the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) open houses. I have a solar filter on the front of the telescope that is allowing me to look at the sun without frying my eye like an over-easy egg! While I love showing the night sky to people, the daytime sky (basically just the Sun) is the one that is most easily accessible. 

I also have a small solar telescope that permits viewing the Sun in a particular color of light called Hydrogen Alpha. I'll write more on that at a later date, you can be sure, as it's a great tool for doing outreach astronomy in elementary schools. In a very real sense the color of sunlight is a window into the inner workings of the atoms that the Sun is made of! The same is true of the color of starlight and the stars it comes from. We may not be able to physically touch the stars but we can look inside their atoms.

Astronomy is the one science that is almost, well, kind of the "universal solvent" if you will, between scientists and ordinary people. I once looked in MySpace and did a query as to the number of people who had astronomy listed as an interest of theirs. I don't remember what the number was but it was huge! When I go back into MySpace now the system only shows 500 hits on a query and no more. I remember that the number of people who had astronomy listed was far higher than chemistry, biology or mathematics. This tells me that astronomy enjoys a huge groundswell of favorable public opinion that outreach fanatics like myself can take advantage of. 
Now if I can just find my astronomical surfboard...

More later, dear readers! Thank you!